Kansas Campmeeting, ca 1968
Dennis Terry, Linda Weaver Terry.
Marilyn Terry Hudson
Camp meetings were a regular feature of many evangelical groups in the 19th and 20th century.  They began as evangelistic tools designed to bring people to a personal relationship with God.   Over the years they evolved and changed to suit the diverse groups found various corners of the world.

In looking at the North American experiences it is clear they adapted to the needs of several branches of Protestant Christianity.  In some traditions these meetings were along the lines of Bible institutes or teaching conferences with worship services highlighted by choirs and congregational singing.  They were often held in the retreats, resorts, and mountain or seaside centers of  New England.  Bible teachers from colleges, the great evangelists of the day, and the musicians of note were on hand. In other traditions, especially in the south and the west,  they were often fashioned along the line of a long series of lively revivals designed to insure salvation and inculcate a desire for more intense holy living. 

Some groups seemed to have equated rough conditions with more spirituality.  The comfortable pews of their home churches forgotten in the endurance of rough board seats.  The conditioned air, or even fanned air, was eschewed in favor of the open air (even in mid summer as temperatures soared into three digits).  The old brush arbor of 19th century meetings may have given way to a more solid roof and strong stable beams, but the saw dust was still there on the ground and the sides open to the wind, as well as the bugs and the rain.

Methodist Meeting ca 1811
In many ways these meetings were along the lines of a religious vacation. This in no way diminishes the spiritual aspect of the event but enhanced it. For rural people isolation was a normative aspect of their and getting together at sales and harvest events looked forward to by all.  This same isolation could be found among many evangelical, holiness, and Pentecostal groups as they spurned "worldly things" but may have also been spurned due to their race, poverty, education level, or culture. 

The camp meeting combined strong spiritual purpose with the opportunity to feel a little less isolated. Where instead of seeking out spiritually worldly entertainments (often forbidden to many adherents of these protestant groups) the people could enjoy safe social interactions, experience fellowship,  hear news of distant places and find temporary diversions from their normal working and religious life.  This served to provide a recreational element needed while supporting the moral values of the religious groups.  

For some traditions not having educational requirements, camp meetings became a place for the pastors and teachers to hear quality preaching, learn new things, and gain better - and more correct or orthodox - understanding of their movement's underlying theology.

Keith Drury has identified several reasons for the demise of the camp meeting. He cites larger churches, loss of  professional evangelists, greater difficulty of people to get away for the traditional week, increased government regulations, improved social standing among evangelical, holiness, and Pentecostal groups, but also some more theological issues, such as a diminished emphasis on "crisis theology":  "Camp meetings have always been about going to the altar, making a decision. Camp meetings were first about "getting saved" and later about "getting sanctified" or some combination of both crisis experiences. As more and more holiness people and pastors adopted a more gradual approach to both sanctification and conversion, the need for the higher pressure hard-sell altar call of the camp meeting diminished."  

This he couples with a "Lack of spiritual hunger":    "Do you know a lot of people so spiritually hungry that they will take their vacation from work and go stay at a camp meeting to hear preaching and teaching three times a day for two weeks straight? My granddad did. And he did it before he was saved! I don't see that much hunger around today. I see some short bursts of temporary hunger maybe for some fast-food spirituality. But not much hunger for a two-week banquet. Camp meetings fight this lack now more than ever. A good swimming pool might help, but... preaching?"

The camp meeting served a purpose as evangelistic tool, to bring spiritual community and fellowship,  to share quality preaching and teaching, and serve as a time of spiritual refreshment.  Many memories were made and the next season was eagerly looked for.  Times may change, people may change, but basic needs of evangelism, hearing the word, and finding new spiritual energy all remain.  It is hoped that present models serve their generation as well as the camp meeting served the needs of previous generations.


Popular posts from this blog

Clergy Collars and Robes

A List of Some Pentecostal Dissertations